19 Jan 2016
I read an excellent piece by John Metta on Medium today, and it re-kindled some embers in my mind about the Civil Rights movement which have been long cooled. Metta’s piece has numerous quotable passages, but this one gets at the essence of what is kind of irksome about most of America’s treatment of the Movement, and the assignment of its mascot, Dr. King:
That is what Martin Luther King has become: a trope that can center the hard work of White America. Martin Luther King’s importance is that he helped White America reach their salvation of racial equality….This MLK day, like every other, we will hear people wax poetic and canonize the Magical Martin Luther King in tribute. It’s a lie. That canonization serves only one purpose: to devalue Blackness. It’s a way to ignore Black intelligence and Black agency.
This point about the “salvation” of White America is not to be passed over. We cannot, as Americans, forget that the narrative of this country was written by white people — white men specifically, and it continues to be that way. There is now just a glimpse of black, brown, and female authorship finding its way into the story; but that is very limited, and still heavily edited by the hand of White Male America.
That editorship includes not only (as Metta points out) the whitewashing (pun intended) of Dr. King’s image and story, but also the actual selection of Dr. King as the representative figure in the Civil Rights Movement. At an even deeper level, the actual naming of the movement itself is an act of white editorship. It’s not called the “Black Liberation Movement” or something else, but rather abstracted so as to draw away from acknowledging the issue that was (and is) essential to the movement. It was about black people being recognized as equals, not about everyone being recognized as equal. It is no different than attempts to water down “Black Lives Matter” by saying that “All Lives Matter”. It’s a cheap (but effective) rhetorical trick; and it continues to be played every third Monday in January.
To put a finer point on it, and to be perfectly clear: I fully recognize that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. deserves the utmost respect as a warrior for black advancement in America. However, I believe that his exclusive selection as the figurehead of the movement, as well as the naming of the movement — striking any mention of race from it — is an instance of exclusion that is tinged with a reluctance of White America to give up the reins of power.
I have always felt that the selection of Dr. King has tended to come at the cost of fully recognizing Malcolm X. Actually, it’s more than that, Malcolm has more been discounted than he has been “not fully recognized”. I recall being raised (as a young white boy, in a nearly all-white school in the midwest) to regard Malcolm X as basically a version of the noble Dr. King, but with too many violent and hooligan tendencies to be taken seriously. Is this anecdotal? Sure. But it was part of the narrative that I carried around with me as young white man until college — when I learned that it was a mischaracterization.
The truth is, Malcolm X was exactly what America needed. His Journey from a literal hooligan in the streets of Detroit, to a strict Muslim rounding up followers in Chicago, to a repentant man going on the haaj, and writing a wonderful meditation on the brotherhood of mankind. Malcolm lived through a full intellectual journey, evolving in much the same way that Americans’ thoughts needed to evolve. We can still learn a lot from his journey — and yet, sadly, we fail to.
So, every Martin Luther King Day, I give the requisite reverence, but still hold out hope. I settle for Martin, but I hope for Malcolm.
Originally published at www.mikesturm.net.